Judge puts hold on statewide Sunoco pipeline drilling
A ruling Tuesday by the state Environmental Hearing Board halted all drilling for the Mariner East II natural gas pipeline in Pennsylvania.
Administrative Judge Bernard A. Labuskes Jr. ordered a temporary stay of Sunoco Pipeline’s permit to conduct horizontal drilling for the pipeline construction, based on an appeal by the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, Mountain Watershed Association Inc. and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
The drilling resulted in 61 spills of drill-bit lubricant in 10 counties, including 11 in Westmoreland, between April 25 and June 17, according to documents released by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers reported 40 such spills through July 17 at Loyalhanna Lake and the affiliated Bush Recreation Area near Saltsburg. Of those, 25 spills entered the water, but none resulted in fish kills.
The hold on drilling is to remain in effect until an Aug. 7 hearing before the state board, Labuskes said, unless Sunoco can explain in detail “why it would cause equipment damage, a safety issue or more environmental harm than good to stop drilling at the 55 locations where drilling is actively under way.”
Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel for the Clean Air Council, charged that the drilling has resulted in damage to residential water wells and water quality along the pipeline route.
Sunoco Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields has acknowledged the drilling lubricant — a mixture of water and nontoxic bentonite clay — can cause clouding and loss of pressure if it seeps into the surface of the local terrain and gets into well water. But he said the company, in accordance with the state DEP, has procedures in place to contain and recover such seepage.
Shields said the company expects at the Aug. 7 hearing to demonstrate “we have expended every effort to meet the strict conditions of our environmental permits.” Until then, he said the company will press forward with pipeline construction, including conventional road boring, at sites where horizontal drilling isn’t involved, while placing a priority on “safety and protection of Pennsylvania’s environment.”
He said the company had “already voluntarily suspended work on a number of our drills” while addressing state officials’ concerns.
The Mariner East II 20- and 16-inch pipelines will be able to carry 275,000 barrels of liquid natural gas per day — stretching over 350 miles, including about 36 miles in Westmoreland County.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or [email protected].